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Fred Hiatt

China's Selective Memory

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, April 18, 2005; Page A17

China, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, has made clear that it doesn't think Japan is deserving of similar status.

You might wonder why not. After all, Japan is one of the world's largest contributors of foreign aid and most generous backers of the United Nations, a successful democracy for more than a half-century, with a powerhouse economy and a constitution that forbids aggression.

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But here's the problem, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao explained last week: "Japan needs to face up to history squarely." After another weekend of anti-Japanese protests and riots in China, China's foreign minister yesterday amplified that "the main problem now is that the Japanese government has done a series of things that have hurt the feelings of the Chinese people . . . especially in its treatment of history."

Truth in history is an interesting standard for great-power status. One intriguing response would be for Japan to embrace it and suggest politely that, if China wants to keep its Security Council seat, it ought to do the same.

There's no doubt, as Premier Wen implied, that some Japanese have a hard time admitting the terrible things their troops did in China, Korea and other occupied Asian countries before and during World War II. Apologies sometimes seem to be mumbled, and textbooks sometimes minimize past crimes.

Recently, for example, Japan's education ministry approved a textbook that refers to the 1937 Nanjing Massacre as an "incident" during which "many" Chinese were killed, though some estimates of civilian deaths run as high as 300,000. News of these textbooks helped spark the anti-Japanese riots in Chinese cities.

But put the issue in some perspective: Many textbooks receive ministry approval in Tokyo, and no school is forced to use any particular one. Issues of war guilt or innocence, and of proper historiography, are debated endlessly and openly in Japanese newspapers, magazines and universities. Some Japanese demonstrate against politicians who won't go to Yasukuni Shrine -- where Japan's war dead, including some who were judged war criminals, are honored -- while other Japanese demonstrate against politicians who do go.

Compare this to the situation in Premier Wen's China. There is only one acceptable version of history, at least at any given time; history often changes, but only when the Communist Party decides to change it.

For example, according to a report by Howard W. French in the New York Times last December, many textbooks don't mention that anyone died at what the outside world knows as the 1989 massacre of student demonstrators near Tiananmen Square. One 1998 text notes only that "the Central Committee took action in time and restored calm." Anyone who challenges the official fiction is subject to harsh punishment, including beatings, house arrest or imprisonment.

And if the 300,000 victims of the Nanjing Massacre are slighted in some Japanese textbooks, what of the 30 million Chinese who died in famines created by Mao Zedong's lunatic Great Leap Forward between 1958 and 1962? No mention in Chinese texts; didn't happen.

Well, you might say, how a nation treats its internal history is less relevant to its qualifications for the Security Council than whether it teaches its children honestly about its wars with other nations. A dubious proposition, but no matter; as the Times found in its review of textbooks, Chinese children do not learn of their nation's invasion of Tibet (1950) or aggression against Vietnam (1979). And they are taught that Japan was defeated in World War II by Chinese Communist guerrillas; Pearl Harbor, Iwo Jima and Midway don't figure in.

"Facing up to history squarely" isn't easy for any country. Americans don't agree on how to remember the Confederacy. Russia can't yet admit to Soviet depredations in the Baltic republics. And, yes, Japan too often sees itself purely as a victim of World War II.

But in countries that permit open debate, historical interpretations can be constantly challenged, revised, maybe brought closer to the truth. In dictatorships that use history as one more tool to maintain power, there's no such hope.

China's Communists used to find it useful to vilify Russia in their history texts. These days, for reasons of China's aspirations to lead Asia, Japan makes a more convenient villain. Next year might be America's turn. The reasons may be complex, but none of them has much to do with facing history squarely.

fredhiatt@washpost.com


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